Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just Call Me the Church Lady

Since we are officially in the Lenten season, now seems like a good time to talk about faith (a-faith-a-faith-a. No George Michael fans in the audience? Sorry. Moving right along…)
No, I’m not here to beat you about the neck and face until you proclaim your devout adherence to the religion of my understanding. That would be unhospitable. Rather, I’m going to tell you a story about my own journey of conversion to Catholicism. Not to convert you, or to make you uncomfortable. But mainly because of the reaction I got when I announced that I was giving up Facebook and Twitter for Lent. So you can understand me a little better. And because I’m a total attention whore. (Sorry. Moving right along…)
Once upon a time, a lonnnnnnnnng time ago, Sweet Baby Sassyfats was born to two recovering Southern Baptists who got married in an Episcopalian church that they never really joined. To muddy the church-affiliation waters a little further, one of Baby Sassyfats’ parents had a Catholic stepmother who had a tumultous relationship with The Church, although she was fiercely Catholic until her dying day.
Throughout Sweet Baby Sassyfats’ childhood, her family attended churches of varying denominations in varying types of buildings, including community centers and strip malls. Some flickering memories of these days include a church that passed around dinner rolls for communion (you were only supposed to take a little piece of one and pass the plate, which I learned after trying to cram half a roll into my chubby little mouth), a church where the pastor encouraged all the men to get up and hug one another (it was the late 70s, if that matters), and a church where people would actually speak in tongues from time to time (which scared the crap out of me, to be quite honest).
When Sweet Baby Sassyfats reached the ripe old age of 11-ish, her family settled on a traditional Methodist church where the preachers wore robes, alter servers lit candles, and a large choir sang traditional hymns. She was too young to get much out of the services, and she was so excruciatingly socially awkward that she got a painful knot in her stomach every week when her parents informed her it was time to get ready for Sunday school. She does not have a boatload of happy-fun-time memories from this church, but to this day the familiar aroma of coffee and old hymnals makes her feel instantly warm and comfortable. So it must not have sucked too bad.  
When Sweet Baby Sassyfats reached the riper, older age of 20-ish, her sister started attending youth group at a large evangelical Methodist church, where the preacher wore khakis, parishoners sat in the church gym (because the sanctuary was too small for the growing congregation), and a Contemporary Christian band rocked the house every Sunday as the rest of us read the song lyrics from a PowerPoint presentation projected on a large screen. Sweet Sassyfats and her family followed Sweet Little Sister to the new church and learned to make a joyful noise with the best of them.
Let all that background information rattle around your brain while I switch from third-person narration to first-person, because the third-person bit is getting tedious. (Again, sorry. Moving on…)   
Backtracking to the days of the traditional Methodist church, I began dating a nice Catholic boy when I was in 11th grade. Whenever we would talk about religion, he would say things like “God is God. It doesn’t matter what church you go to. I don’t really care if I stay Catholic or not.” Years later, when we got engaged, Miracle Man's lacksidaisical attitude toward Catholocism evaporated in the blink of an eye. When I first talked about finding a church for the wedding, he rattled off a list of Catholic churches and informed me I may have to convert for the wedding. When I lovingly informed him that I was not converting under any circumstances and he had damn well better get that idea out of his head, he lovingly informed me that “WE ARE HAVING A CATHOLIC WEDDING AND THAT!! IS!! FINAL!!!!!” But more on the complexities of interpersonal relationships some other day. Let's just say it's a good thing we had a long engagement. 
Our inability to sort out the religion thing had a lot to do with my own questions about my own basic faith. Who was this God person? And why was he so bossy? And judgey? Besides, what if he’s just made up? Or what if Stephen King had it right in It: Our universe is nothing more than a puddle of cosmic turtle vomit.

Pennywise could tell you a thing or two about that.
As I continued to struggle with my own faith, I continued to battle with my beloved over where to have the wedding. One of the best pieces of advice I got during that uncertain time came from my own Dear Mama, who said that the most important aspect of a church is that you can feel God’s presence when you worship. Don’t cut yourself off from the opportunity to hear God whispering to you because of the name on the church door. For a woman who had a hard time nailing down which denomination to stick with, Dear Mama has always had a solid spiritual core and a strong relationship with the Almighty. Go, Mama.  
Dear Mama's advice made a big impact on my way of thinking, as did the book she gave me, Your God Is Too Small. I began to realize that it wasn't God I had an issue with, it was my perception of God that gave me heartburn. I learned that I should never believe people who bend God’s word to heap sorrow and damnation upon other people. God is far bigger than any human's narrow understanding of Him, and we should stop trying to cram him into some tiny box that suits our own personal comfort zones.
My conversations with Miracle Man became more open, and we decided to look for a church we both liked. Because it meant so much to him, I agreed to try a Catholic church first. We struck paydirt with the first church we attended together. It reminded me of the traditional Methodist church I went to as a child (robes, candles, and choir). It was warm. It was inviting. I could indeed feel God’s presence. Miracle Man was happy because it was Catholic. Win-win. The kindly old priest said I didn't have to convert to get married there, and we got on with the wedding plans. 

If I were getting married today, I would totally quote
The Princess Bride in my wedding program. 
Not long after we got married, Miracle Man’s work schedule changed so that he was rarely able to attend Mass with me. I started getting tired of going to church by myself, so I started going back the evangelical Methodist church (khakis, gym, and praise music) with my family. At the time, the pastor was doing a series of sermons that really touched my heart and set my soul on fire. (In a good way. At no point was spontaneous human combustion an issue. Whew!

This church is where I became passionate about my faith, where Christianity finally started making sense to me, and where I finally got baptized at the ripe old age of 26-ish. Since I was so dedicated to this church by the time Daughter1 was born, Miracle Man was fully supportive having her baptized there. No drama whatsoever. That there was a gift in itself.
However, the day came when the beloved old pastor retired. Half the congregation followed some of the elders to a brand-spankin' new nondenominational church, and those of us left behind acutely felt their absence. Miracle Man and I stuck around for about a year, but the church never really got its spark back. Services were sparsely attended and not all that galvanizing. Since I had a baby at home, it got really easy to get really lazy about going to church. I never stopped praying, and I would go to different churches in the area from time to time to see if they would suit us. There was one that we went to a handful of times, but we were steadfast and resolute in our desire to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Then one day we learned that Daughter2 existed. We knew we had to find a home church before the kid popped out so we wouldn’t feel like big ‘ol hypocrites when we signed up to get her baptized. We just so happened to find home in a nearby Catholic church when Daughter2 was still a wee little fetus. When she was born, we began preparing for her baptism and enrolled Daughter1 in Faith Formation classes (that’s what they call CCD nowadays). We’ve been happy to be parishoners at this church ever since.
As the years ticked by, I started to feel a tug in the direction of officially joining the flock. Why stand out in a corner of the field making “baaa-baaa” noises about not wanting to change when I was indoctrinating my children with this belief system? The more they learned in Faith Formation classes, the more I wanted to learn. My desire to seek full membership in the Catholic faith came from within. There was no external pressure. It felt like a natural progression instead of a GREAT! BIG! LIFE! CHANGE!
There are many hoops to jump through when you become Catholic as an adult. But the hoops no longer seemed like obstacles. Rather, they were opportunities for me to learn more about the religion I wanted to practice. The more I learned, all the things that used to turn me off about the Catholic church – the pageantry, the hierarchy, and the never-ending rules – started to make sense to me. I learned a lot about the theology behind all that, and it was no longer something I wanted to resist. I go through the motions of being a Catholic because I want to. I do not feel repressed or imposed upon. Actively practicing this religion helps me stay grounded. It helps me stay closer to God. And as a wise woman once told me (Hi, Mama!), you should never cut yourself off from the opportunity to hear God whispering to you.   
I took the sacraments during last year's Easter Vigil service, and I have no regrets. I can’t tell you that I will be Super-Catholic (dun-da-daaaa! where’s my cape?) until my dying day. Seriously, every time I make any type of bold declaration, life throws me a flaming curve ball to see if I really meant it. But I can tell you that I don’t plan on changing things up any time soon. My faith journey is nowhere near complete - I believe I can learn a million things a day and still have plenty of questions. But I also believe that day by day, step by step, this journey will continue to lead me where I belong.  

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